PHILADELPHIA - Phil Martelli didn't hesitate when the Gophers inquired about a two-game series with his St. Joseph's men's basketball team.
The Hawks coach, however, left out one minor detail about Wednesday's game -- an 83-73 Gophers victory -- in Philadelphia. The location.
Instead of the Wells Fargo Center, home of the NBA's 76ers, or the Palestra, a historic 9,000-seat arena, the 22nd-ranked Gophers (8-1) played St. Joseph's (3-6) at the Hagan Center, a cozy 4,200-seat on-campus facility.
"Nobody ever asked where the game was going to be played," said Martelli, whose team played the Gophers at Williams Arena last season. "Hopefully, Tubby [Smith] feels that it helped his team for down the road, for road challenges."
Today, it's rare for a major program to go across the country and play a team such as St. Joseph's, a mid-major with everything to gain. And the Gophers might not come back, considering 11-2 and 7-0 runs helped the Hawks maintain a single-digit deficit until Trevor Mbakwe's rim-rattler with 46 seconds left increased Minnesota's advantage to 81-71.
Devoe Joseph, one of five players in double figures, scored a team-high 19 points as the Gophers' starting point guard. Blake Hoffarber added 14 points, and Mbakwe recorded his sixth double-double of the season (12 points, 16 rebounds) in a game played in front of an announced crowd of 3,911.
The Gophers coach said competing in a setting that felt far more like a high school gym will help his team later in the season.
"I think it helps, it helps in a lot of different ways, getting in this type of environment, to see how our guys respond," Smith said. "And we've responded well in situations like this, where our back is against the wall, where it's an us-against-them type of mentality."
The Gophers' battle with the struggling Hawks simulated a fraction of the atmosphere they'll encounter when their Big Ten schedule begins with back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Despite holding a 36-26 edge at halftime after they'd held the Hawks to 23 percent shooting, the Gophers found themselves in danger throughout the second half.
Playing its first home game in nearly two weeks, St. Joseph's fed off its crowd.
Fans sat within a few feet of the court's perimeter. After Mbakwe's big start, they chanted, "Trevor ... Trevor ... Trevor," and they erupted when they thought the officials blew a second-half call.
But the Gophers fought through the noise.
After St. Joseph's cut a 10-point halftime deficit to one when Carl Jones, who led all scorers with 29 points, hit a three-pointer with 16:36 to play, the Gophers fired back.
Consecutive three-pointers by Hoffarber and Joseph, a Mbakwe dunk, Mo Walker's putback (10 points for the freshman) and another Hoffarber three-pointer made up a 13-0 run that zapped the young Hawks. St. Joseph's got within five points four more times, but that was it.
The Gophers went 13-for-17 from the free-throw line and shot 48.4 percent from the field, which helped them get their first true road victory of the year.
Joseph said playing through tough stretches on the road is a sign of maturity.
"You don't have the crowd to get you excited; when you hit the shot, they're not screaming your name," he said. "It's more everyone against you, so you have to keep boosting up your teammates ... and stay focused at all times."
But competing in a small arena halfway across the country isn't all bad, Hoffarber said.
"I kind of like these little venues," Hoffarber said. "It's kind of like high school. ... Kind of a shooter's gym."